By ELIZABETH HAYES

Staff Reporter

Downtown Los Angeles has a much-publicized problem: too many obsolete old office buildings and not enough housing. Tom Gilmore thinks he has the answer.

Gilmore, head of investment/development firm Gilmore Associates, plans to transform three dilapidated and vacant Old Bank District buildings into 235 loft apartments.

Of course, these turn-of-the-century buildings were designed to house banks, not residents, and have neither the plumbing, wiring or even interior walls of apartment buildings. Gilmore, however, is betting that they can be converted using minimal interior flourishes not even walls between rooms.

Designed by architect Wade Killefer, each apartment will sport an unusual 12-foot by 12-foot cube that will, in a single unit, house three elements normally found in separate rooms a kitchen, bathroom and bedroom.

The kitchen would be set into the front of the cube, complete with deep stone countertops, shelves, stove and oven. The bathroom door is set in the cube behind the kitchen. On units with high enough ceilings, stairs running along one side of the cube will lead to a sleeping loft on top.

"The trick is to let the apartments work around the big windows, so when you walk into these buildings, you get a sense of open, well-lit spaces," said Killefer, of Santa Monica-based Killefer Flammang Purtill Architects.

All new plumbing will be installed, in addition to new air-conditioning and heating systems, cable TV hookups and other amenities.

The three buildings run along Fourth Street, from Spring to Main. Gilmore has acquired two properties and is in escrow on the third, while he secures the necessary building and fire safety permits.

He and his partners have kicked in $2 million and he's lined up financing from the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the city to cover the balance of the $31.5 million project, which should begin construction this fall.

If the closely watched development is a success, Gilmore has his sights set on other historical office buildings nearby that could follow suit.

The three bank buildings once stood at the hub of the city's bustling financial district. They are known as the San Fernando Building, the Hellman Building and the 12-story Continental Building, one of the city's first skyscrapers.

Because they were made to be offices, the loft apartments don't have a lot of walls, but they do have windows, creating space that is open, light and airy.

"It's wonderful to start with, so you want to take advantage of its best attributes," Killefer said.

To learn what would sell, Gilmore gathered focus groups composed of people who had inquired about the project. Many of them were young people from the Westside who work in creative businesses. "We're as interested in them as they are in us," Gilmore said. "It's really been a great process because you go in thinking you know everything, and you don't."

Gilmore gave the prospective tenants a tour of the buildings and showed them blueprints. Initially, Killefer and Gilmore broke up the space more with interior walls, but the prospects balked.

"What people wanted were big, uncluttered spaces," Killefer said.

They liked the idea of the kitchen-bathroom cube, which acts as a large piece of furniture that breaks up the space somewhat, allowing for what Gilmore calls an "implied bedroom" to the side. Future inhabitants can create their own walls with screens or furniture.

The units will range from 600 to 1,500 square feet and have floors of polished concrete.

"For single people and couples, it's great. It's an exciting, different option," Killefer said.

There are also plans for rooftop gardens and 24-hour doormen. And Gilmore is also working to lease ground-floor space to a market and restaurant.

"How hard is it to imagine a caf & #233; or bar?" Gilmore said of the bottom floor of the San Fernando Building.

Already, Gilmore has a list of about 60 prospective tenants consisting partly of workers at Killefer's office, the city's Building and Safety department and the company that did a market survey for Gilmore. Rents will range from $800 to $2,000 per month.

Gilmore said he's confident his gamble into the heart of L.A.'s historical core will pay off, given that L.A.'s population is growing and "all roads lead to downtown."

"Every highway and rail line comes downtown," he said. "We have the chance to be at the crossroads of the city, ethnically and culturally."

Gilmore, who moved to Manhattan from Long Island as soon as he was old enough to strike out on his own, is betting there are those in L.A. who crave that same urban experience.

"I'm trying to tap into the enormous group of people who are young and energetic and don't want to start gardening yet," he said. "I need 235 people to say yes."

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